The Italian town of Modica is one of the few places in the world where the tradition of granular Aztec-type chocolate is still live.
The Spaniards ruled the Kingdom of Sicily from the War of the Vespers (in 1282) until the 18th century; their influence over the island led to the introduction of various fruits and vegetables discovered in the Americas between the 16th and the 17th century. Among tomatoes, potatoes, and tobacco, there was cacao, which was probably introduced in connection with the influence of the Cabrera family. Anna Cabrera, heir of John Cabrera, count of Modica, wed a Castilian admiral, Frederick Enriquez, who was likely the person who introduced chocolate production in Sicily through his travels in the Americas. *
* = Roberta Gangi, Modican Chocolate—Best of Sicily Magazine (2011)
Today, Modica is the chocolate center par excellence in Sicily, crowded with a handful of names crafting chocolate inspired by the old Spanish times, but—surprisingly enough—rare for me was to have found one respecting the historical tradition of starting the entire process directly from the cacao beans—not premade masses.
The Modican-style chocolate I found in a precedent occasion at my grocery market didn’t leave me with a good impression: it was way too sweet and abundantly infused with chili to the point that I could barely recognize and enjoy the part played by cacao in the chocolate. After such an experience, I challenged myself to give another occasion to Modican chocolate. Drawn by my interest in the bean-to-bar, I contacted a maker I was following on Facebook for some time because they had a particular thing I liked: they showed the cacao beans.
Donna Elvira is an “antica dolceria” (antique pastry lab) renowned for producing marzipan sweets, nougats, jams, cookies, and selling natural spices and high-quality coffee.
After some months from our first contact, Giovanni, the restless cacao gatherer at Donna Elvira, sent me a colorful 10-bar collection of their Modican chocolate, eight of which were pure 70% single-origins (cacao beans and organic cane sugar).
The rustic mouthfeel and the intense, singing flavors of cacao I could detect in each of these chocolates changed my tune about Modican chocolate wholeheartedly.
70% Papua Nuova Guinea Modican Chocolate
From a cacao rich in unmistakable cherry, red currant, and hazelnut notes, this bar starkly met my highest preference among the stash.
70% Nicaragua O’Payo Modican Chocolate
Another great cacao origin, a chocolate with fruity notes of pineapple and passion fruit, with subtle toasted notes of coffee.
70% Vietnam Modican Chocolate
Made with cacao coming from the region of Ben Tre, on the estuary of the river Mekong, this chocolate presents sought-after notes of prunes and wood.
70% Madagascar Modican Chocolate
A chocolate with the intense fruity notes of cacao from Madagascar, with a light acidity.
The rough ground-stone texture of Modican chocolate makes this origin rediscovered with an elevated sensory experience.
70% Peru Piura Modican Chocolate
Made with cacao blanco from the north-western region of Piura in Peru, it has notes of molasses, caramel, and blueberries.
70% Amazonian Peru Modican Chocolate
This cacao grown in the northeast of Peru has a slight acidity and aromatic tastes of pineapple.
70% Bolivia Wild Benian Modican Chocolate
Made with cacao from Alto Beni in Bolivia, this origin has raisin, wood, and vanilla notes.
70% Ecuadorian Raw Modican Chocolate
Even if chocolate with “raw” qualifiers would not be exactly a match for my choices when it comes to good chocolate, this bar made with “unroasted” cacao from Ecuador didn’t at least show a particular astringency in the mouth and actually ended pretty pleasant.
60% Mascobado Modican Chocolate
The Mascobado Modican chocolate bar is made with 60% Carenero Superior cacao beans and 40% Mascobado cane sugar, a natural sweetener rich of molasses which imparts the chocolate rustic aromatic notes of licorice and dried fruit.
One remark about this bar was its surface presented extended bloom, likely due to the high humidity of the Mascobado sugar.
45% Latte (Milk) Modican Chocolate
For milk chocolate lovers: the taste of Sarda sheep milk is superb and addicting, without the chocolate being unpleasantly sugary. A milk chocolate bar at high hedonism rate, whose pleasure I would have loved to concede a replica.
The Sarda is considered to be among the best Italian breeds for the production of sheep’s milk (authentic Pecorino Romano cheese includes this milk to achieve its excellent and recognizable taste).
Intrigued to know more about the inspiring history, mission, and work related to Modican chocolate that husband and wife Giovanni Petriliggieri and Elvira Roccasalva have embarked on recently, I thought to invite them for a thorough interview I am proud to share.
First and foremost, thanks for taking part in the interview, Elvira & Giovanni!
What are your respective backgrounds and actual roles in the Donna Elvira business? When and how did your journey to chocolate begin exactly?
Dolceria Donna Elvira was born 20 years ago, in perfect continuity with a tradition and a much more ancient wisdom, linked to the Sicilian convent pastry. We still jealously guard the recipe inherited from a historical dolceria and to which we draw for our production. Together, we carry this little reality with passion and curiosity.
Elvira follows the laboratory: each cookie, every sweet, each bar of chocolate passes through her hands. Giovanni deals with the sourcing of raw materials, an aspect that has always had a crucial importance for us and that’s gotten even more so now that we have decided to produce Modican chocolate with the bean-to-bar method, that implies a direct selection of the cacao beans.
Modican chocolate is different from any other variety of chocolate produced elsewhere and even Italians themselves, coming from other regions than Sicily, may never have experienced this niche chocolate tradition. The specialty, inspired by the Aztec original recipe for Xocoatl, was introduced in the County of Modica by the Spaniards, during their domination in the southern part of Italy.
Could you please describe the characteristics and process that make Chocolate of Modica so unique?
Modican chocolate is a rough chocolate, since it does not undergo refining operations as conching.
For this, the aspect that characterizes it the most is sugar, that worked at low temperature remains intact and gives crunchiness to the tablet. Modican chocolate, derived directly from Mesoamerica, was consumed only as a drink, and the tablet was nothing else than the preparation ready for use to dissolve in warm water.
Rather than on the traditional recipe including flavorings and spices, your bean-to-bar Modican chocolate focuses on the flavors of the different cacao origins, selected from Central and South America to Asia and the Pacific Islands.
This notable aspect of your chocolate production then becomes a demonstration of innovation mingled with tradition. What are your biggest gratifications in rehabilitating this choice thus far?
Modican chocolate is renowned for the essential processing method, but also for the inclusion of spices, herbs, dried fruits, which make it fascinating.
However, it’s the cacao that has to tell about the chocolate. Period.
Cacao as the absolute protagonist in chocolate: its origin, the places of production, the different flavor profiles and all that we know—and what we do not know yet—are stimulating topics that require continuous insights. Our curiosity and our drive for research have led us in that direction.
Making bean-to-bar chocolate in Modican today is like stepping into the past to build a bridge to the future. In the 18th century, when it is believed to have started the consumption of chocolate in Sicily, cacao beans mainly arrived from the Venezuelan port near Caracas. For this provenance, cacao beans were also locally called caracca and were transformed in the same way happening in the New World: roasted and then ground on the metate (a Mesoamerican flat stone for grinding). Afterward, together with sugar and spices, the chocolate obtained was modeled in the form of tablets and, when needed, melted in water to prepare the drink with ritual gestures.
For nearly a century, while the cultivation of cacao had spread widely even to other continents, unfortunately, cacao seeds didn’t arrive in Modica almost at all, suppressed by the wider accessibility to the cocoa mass already worked in more or less industrial plants. Restarting now to produce directly from the cacao beans means to reestablish Modican chocolate the dignity it deserves.
It’s always a challenge to source high-quality cacao beans from different sources, because you need to find the right person at the origin, with whom to talk to and build a relationship of trust. This is of paramount importance for chocolate makers residing thousands of miles away from the cacao origin.
How did you come across the idea to embark on this mission? Do you also visit cacao farms?
Making bean to bar and directly choosing the cacao beans provided by a multitude of suppliers offers a broader opportunity to have customized products that are more consistent with our interpretations instead of adapting to the flattened pre-packaged material of the processing industries. We are thrilled and excited by the possibility of a daily commitment to expanding our research, which will undoubtedly be poised to new visits to plantations, as we already did in Ecuador, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.
How would you describe your target consumers and how has the reception been of your chocolate both nationally and internationally?
The consumer we serve is mainly a person with an attentive and demanding palate, a real gourmand who can grasp the various aromatic and sensory nuances in what they taste. But also through exhibitions and tastings, we want to educate as many people as possible in arousing their interest, curiosity, and wonder.
What’s the weirdest—or flattering—thing people tell you after tasting your chocolate for the first time?
Frequently, most of the consumers do not expect to discover that cacao can offer an ample range of flavors, expressed as aromatic differences on the place of origin and, in the end, they get amazed and fascinated.
Do you exchange experience and know-how with other makers or advisers in the field?
The exchange of knowledge and the humility to learn are the basis for success in any industry. Our interest and curiosity were stimulated by having met some of the best Italian artisan chocolatiers.
Is attending live events and fairs enough for a micro-batch chocolate maker struggling to make their name known and appreciated by the widest possible public interest?
Trade fairs are excellent opportunities to get to know the slice of the public interested but it’s not enough and not all trade shows can give visibility to an emerging producer. It’s crucial to participate in international competitions and undergo assessments of competent juries.
Last but not least, how important would you say is the role of technology and social media for present and future market opportunities?
Technology and social media are imperative to master and as a means to put our work and philosophy on the map. For that, we firmly believe that nowadays care and innovation also passes through the presence and communication on the Internet.
Thanking Giovanni and Elvira for delighting me not only with their chocolate, but also for inspiring me with their passion for Modican chocolate, I keep following their developments on Facebook, looking forward to finding out which cacao origin is coming next.